Five things to do with teens around Coniston, Cumbria

It can be hard work holidaying with teens. Even more so when your destination is a soggy Lake District rather than the Instagram perfect beach of their dreams. Fear not, if you’re in the Lakes, and you’ve managed to lure them out of bed before noon, why not try one of the following:

Walk up a mountain

Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston
Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston

Climbing to the summit of any mountain gives a great sense of achievement, even if there are a few grumbles along the way. From Coniston, the 2634 ft Old Man of Coniston is the obvious target. The tourist trail paths are well marked and there’s plenty of legacy mining activity to add interest.

We booked on to a guided walk with Lake District volunteer leaders. Our route was originally designed to summit both the Old Man and Dow Crag. However the incessant rain put paid to this and our leader suggested an alternative descent instead of Dow Crag. Although slightly disappointing we were all soaked through and it was the right decision. Of course the rain eased off not long afterwards!

Route down from Old Man of Coniston
Route down from Old Man of Coniston

Walking with a guide offered us the opportunity to learn more about the area and its industrial history, which I wouldn’t always appreciate if walking alone. The National Park offers a variety of walks for all abilities which generally cost £10 or less per person (many are free). Highly recommended.

Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston
Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston

Go gorge scrambling

If there’s one thing that gets teens animated it’s the chance of an adventure. Something completely different from their day to day routines. Gorge scrambling definitely offers this.

We booked a half day gorge scrambling and canyoning trip with Adventure 21. This was a somewhat unusual activity for me as, unlike the rest of the family, I do not like water. I can hardly swim and I hate getting my face wet. I was way out of my comfort zone.

Gorge scrambling - photos courtesy of Adventure 21
Gorge scrambling – photos courtesy of Adventure 21

After manoeuvring ourselves into wetsuits, waterproofs and helmets we walked from Coniston Water up through the village to Church Beck. Here we entered the fast flowing water and I was relieved not to be immediately swept downstream. Despite my fears an almost enjoyable two hours ensued. Gorge scrambling is as it sounds; we climbed up through small waterfalls and negotiated the rocky river bed. If you’re used to scrambling on dry land, this is technically easier but the water makes it ‘interesting’.

At the end of the scramble there’s a chance to try canyoning. Better known as scary big jumps into water. The non-swimmer in me opted out. There was no way I was going to put my head under water.

Despite my reservations everyone survived. And, as predicted, the teens declared this the best day of the holiday.

Take a boat trip on Coniston Water

Coniston boat trip
Coniston boat trip

I’d been looking forward to a boat trip in the Lake District (particularly as it’s one of my UK bucket list items). Truth be told, this was one of our less enjoyable days. It didn’t help that I’d read the wrong timetable and arrived just as the steam gondola I’d planned to catch left the jetty. Or that it was raining. Again.

We took an alternative boat which, although perfectly serviceable, wasn’t what I’d envisaged. Our 60 minute cruise took us up to Wildcat Island, of Swallows and Amazons fame, before returning via Brantwood. This was the home of John Ruskin and makes for an interesting stopover. There’s a cafe, museum and, on dry days, gardens to explore.

Brantwood House
Brantwood House

For a little more excitement we could have hired a canoe, kayak or rowing boat from the Coniston Boating Centre. But I’d had enough of water over the previous couple of days. And at least our boat trip was weather proof.

Go on a road trip

I was running out of ideas to occupy another wet day. Sitting in a car for much of the day wouldn’t normally feature on my list of activities. But when your drive includes a route over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes it’s a lot more exciting!

View from Hardknott Roman fort
View from Hardknott Roman fort

We drove a circular route via Coniston to Broughton-in-Furness, up to Duddon Bridge and Ulpha, onto Eskdale then over the passes to Little Langdale.

We stretched our legs in Eskdale with a walk to Stanley Ghyll Force waterfall and again at Hardknott Roman Fort. The fort is in an incredible setting but I didn’t envy its inhabitants. The winters would have been so harsh; no amount of Roman plumbing could convince me to live there.

View across Wrynose Pass
View across Wrynose Pass

From the fort a single track road zigzags up and over Hardknott and then Wrynose Pass. It’s one of the steepest roads in the UK so you’ll be lucky to get out of second gear. My advice? Give way to drivers coming uphill (and locals), concentrate on the road and don’t be scared by the TripAdvisor reviews. If you’re a confident driver in a decent vehicle you’ll be absolutely fine. Believe me, it’s one of the best drives in the UK. Even the teens stayed awake for it!

Explore caves

There are lots of abandoned quarries, mine workings and caves in this area. Many are dangerous and shouldn’t be entered. However Cathedral Quarry, a short walk from Little Langdale, offers you the opportunity to explore a man made quarry and tunnels in a relatively safe environment.

Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale
Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale

Cathedral Quarry is, rather surprisingly, owned by the National Trust. It is not your usual NT property. It’s free to visit and always open but there are no facilities or cafe. You’ll need to bring a torch for the tunnels and waterproof footwear for clambering over rocks and wading through puddles. Great fun for an hour or two. Oh, and watch out for the goldfish!

Important

All of the above suggestions are at your own risk. As in, they might be dangerous. But how boring would life be it was perfectly safe?

We visited in summer (I use this term loosely); a winter visit is a completely different undertaking.

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A walk beside the Purton hulks, Gloucestershire

If you’re looking for a short quirky walk in Gloucestershire how about visiting a ship’s graveyard? We spent an hour discovering the Purton hulks, one of my British bucket list items, on the way home from an overnight stay at St Briavels Castle YHA.

Gloucester and Sharpness Canal

After parking opposite the church in Purton, we crossed the bridge and followed a sign directing us to the Purton hulks. This took us along a towpath, bordered on one side by the Gloucester and Sharpness canal and the River Severn on the other.

Gloucester and Sharpness canal
Gloucester and Sharpness canal

The 16.5 mile canal runs, as you’d expect, between Gloucester and Sharpness. Built to bypass a dangerous stretch of the River Severn it was once the deepest and broadest canal in the world. Nowadays it’s mainly used by pleasure craft and kayakers. In the not too distant past oil tankers and even submarines have navigated its waters!

Purton Hulks

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

After 15 minutes or so we reached the first few boats. Between 1909 and the 1970s vessels were deliberately beached along the River Severn to shore up the banks and protect the land between the river and canal.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

Today there are over 80 vessels in the ship graveyard. Many are hidden under grass or silt. Some are in an advanced state of decay with just the rotting timbers and huge bolts remaining. You certainly need to keep your eyes on the ground, partly so you don’t miss anything but also to avoid the trip hazards.

Purton Hulks, Gloucestershire
Purton Hulks, Gloucestershire

There’s a huge variety of boats here, from schooners to concrete barges. The Friends of Purton group have investigated and published in-depth histories of each of the vessels on their website. Each ship has a name plaque which you can look up online.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

In the same way that I loved learning about the residents of Highgate Cemetery on our recent visit, I enjoyed finding out about the vessels at Purton.

The ship below is Harriett, the last known example of a Kennet built barge. She spent her life in the Bristol docks area, carrying grain and wood pulp.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

This is Edith, a Chepstow trow. She used to transport coal between Bristol and the Forest of Dean. Edith has an eventful past, with several collisions and groundings. She was finally beached in the 1960s.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

There’s not a lot left of Sally, also known as King. Beached during a snowstorm in 1951 much of her history is a mystery although she may have originated in the Caribbean. Sadly she has suffered at the hands of arsonists who have burnt her timbers in order to extract metals from them.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

Photographers will have a field day exploring the hulks. Historians and boat lovers too. I don’t particularly class myself as any of these but they’re well worth a visit. Just don’t leave it too long. They won’t be here forever!

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

After you reach the last of the accessible boats the path leads back up to the canal. From here you can return along the towpath. Or, if you fancy a longer walk, head into Sharpness in the opposite direction.

More info

  • The Friends of Purton website is a mine of information with copious detail on the ships and their histories.
  • Wear wellies or boots after rain. It will be very muddy!
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A walk to and around Highgate Cemetery, London

Highgate Cemetery, one of my UK bucket list items, might appear a strange destination for a family day out but we loved it. We spent an afternoon visiting the cemetery after a morning walk across Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath

We had a couple of hours spare before our cemetery tour so I’d planned a walking route from Hampstead Heath underground station to Highgate Cemetery.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hampstead Heath. My prior knowledge mostly came from lurid tabloid headlines about the after dark activities of gay men on the western heath. The daytime reality was a tranquil dog walking and running area, albeit one that was in need of a good dose of rain.

Hampstead Heath boating pond
Hampstead Heath boating pond

Our route took us up to the viewpoint on Parliament Hill. From here the Shard, Gherkin, St Paul’s Cathedral and BT Tower are all easy to see. Some of the other buildings shown on the orientation map were harder; I couldn’t see the London Eye however much I looked.

View from Primrose Hill, London
View from Parliament Hill, London

Highgate is also famous for its outdoor bathing ponds. These were much busier than I expected on a gloomy weekday. I’m not a water lover so couldn’t imagine wanting to swim in them, surrounded by ducks and pond debris. However plenty of swimmers looked like they were enjoying it, particularly the divers jumping off the board in the men’s bathing pond.

Before heading to the cemetery we popped into the Village Deli in Highgate village for a takeaway lunch. Despite the expensive sounding name, and location, our picnic lunch was incredible value and very tasty, highly recommended. There’s a square opposite to sit and eat your lunch in.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate was one of seven new private London cemeteries, constructed in the Victorian era, to accommodate the increasing number of burials. Prior to this, burials were in local churchyards but these were literally overflowing due to the doubling of London’s population.

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

Many of London’s wealthiest were laid to rest in Highgate. However, the cemetery fell into decline after the second World War. Decaying and vandalised it was taken over in 1975 by a charity, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who work to restore and preserve the area.

We visited West Highgate on a guided tour before crossing Swain’s Lane to look around the East Cemetery independently.

West Highgate Cemetery

Forget your local graveyard. Imagine instead a jumbled area of crowded gravestones and gothic and Egyptian influenced monuments, some covered with ‘Dangerous’ tape. Nature is in charge; tree roots climb over gravestones, ivy and bramble tendrils encircle the monuments. This is West Highgate cemetery. Some visitors call it romantic, others creepy; I guess I’m somewhere in between.

Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery
Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery

We started our tour in the open space in front of The Colonnade; big enough, our guide explained, so that the horse drawn carriages delivering coffins could turn around.  From here we followed the path up through the graveyard to the Egyptian Avenue, flanked by columns and obelisks.

There are sixteen family vaults on either side of the avenue; each with room for twelve coffins. The vaults are also home to a large spider, the rare orb weaver. Discovered during a bat survey the London Wildlife Trust estimates the vaults could contain a hundred of these adult cave spiders. I’m not sure whether the bodies or the spiders unsettle me more!

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

The Egyptian Avenue leads out into the Circle of Lebabon; a huge 300 year old cedar tree surrounded by a circle of tombs. The Victorians certainly knew how to celebrate their interred relations, very different to today’s attitude to death.

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

Our eyes slowly accustomed to the dark inside our next stop, the above ground Terrace Catacombs. It takes a moment longer to realise that every recess on either side of the passageway houses a coffin. Room for 825 people in total! We heard how coffins were once prone to exploding due to a build up of gases inside them. The ingenious solution was to drill a small hole into the coffin, insert a pipe and burn the gases off.

Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery
Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery

Outside the catacombs stands the mausoleum of Julius Beer. This was built for his daughter Ada who died she was just eight years old. Although we couldn’t go inside our guide showed us photographs of its rich interior. The mausoleum cost £5000 to build in 1878; in today’s money that’s around £3 million!

Most residents of West Highgate cemetery may not be household names today but many were famous in their day. I loved hearing the stories of some of these. Our guide recounted the life of Tom Sayers, a bare knuckle fighter whose stone dog adorns his grave. And that of Jim Selby, a carriage driver who raced from London to Brighton and back in less than eight hours.

Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery
Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery

The grave of George Wombwell reflects his livelihood, a travelling menagerist. His tomb lies under a statue of his lion, Nero. George famously advertised a dead elephant as one of his exhibits in order to attract more visitors than a competitor, who only had a live elephant. Different times indeed.

One of the more recent graves is for Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who was poisoned by polonium radiation. His grave is buried 12 foot deep and lined with lead to protect from visitors from accidental radioactive exposure.

Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London
Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London

Our guide also explained the symbolism used by the Victorians. I’ve never given it any thought before but urns, clasped hands and broken pillars all have specific meanings. For example, a broken column indicates a life cut off in its prime. I’d always assumed it was due to vandalism!

Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery
Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery

We finished our tour with a visit to the dissenters graveyard. This is an area of two acres set aside for non-Anglicans; not as extensive as the fifteen acres for Anglicans.

I’d hoped we might see some of the wildlife that Highgate is famous for. There were plenty of butterflies and a cheeky robin but no fox cubs lounging on gravestones that I’ve seen in some photographs. Fortunately we didn’t see the vampires or ghosts that Highgate is also known for!

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

East Highgate cemetery

East Highgate Cemetery is a tidier, more manicured resting place on the opposite side of Swain’s Lane. There’s less woodland and the graves are arranged in a more formal layout.

The entry booth provides maps with the graves of more notable residents marked; there are plenty of familiar names. There are all walks of life here; from historians, architects, zoologists and cabaret stars to political activists. Even the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery.

Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery
Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery

Over in West Highgate most of the gravestones we saw were of traditional design. Whereas in East Highgate Patrick Caulfield’s gravestone has the word DEAD cut out of the granite, and Malcolm McLaren has another statement headstone. Douglas Adams has a simple grey headstone but fans have adorned it with a pot full of pencils.

However the most famous grave belongs to that of Karl Marx, the German philosopher. Although originally buried in another part of the cemetery he was moved in the 1950s after the Communist Party funded a new memorial.

We didn’t stay long in East Highgate as we had a train to catch. Fortunately we left early as I took the roundabout route back to the underground station. Yes, we went the wrong way!

If you’re looking for other unusual things to do in and about London please pop over to my 10 quirky things to do in an hour in London post.

More info

  • You’ll need to book in weekday tours advance in the West Cemetery on the Highgate Cemetery website. Alternatively turn up early on a weekend and go on the next available tour. You can visit the East Cemetery without a tour, an entrance fee is payable.

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15 best picnic spots in Oxfordshire

Summer days are made for picnics. Whether you’re looking for somewhere to take the kids, a peaceful river bank or a hill with a view there are plenty of great picnic spots in Oxfordshire. Scroll down to find my favourites!

1. Cutteslowe Park, Oxford

Cutteslowe is the largest park in Oxford with lots to keep children entertained. There’s mini golf, a splash zone (summer only), miniature railway (selected weekends), play areas, duck pond, sandpits and picnic tables. You could easily spend all day here. Parking charges apply.

2. Warburg Nature Reserve, near Henley

Hidden in the Chiltern hills this woodland is a great spot for nature lovers. At the reserve entrance you’ll find a small interpretation centre, toilets and a picnic area. Once you’ve eaten, walk off your lunch on the circular wildlife trail. If you visit in early summer look out for the orchids.

Warburg isn’t the easiest place to find so follow the instructions on the BBOWT website.

3. White Horse Hill, Uffington

In my opinion the view from White Horse Hill is the best in Oxfordshire. After your picnic be sure to explore the area; as well as the chalk figure, walk around the Iron Age hill fort of Uffington Castle and wander along the Ridgeway to the Neolithic burial ground of Wayland’s Smithy.

Park in the National Trust car park, charge applies for non members.

4. Abbey Meadows, beside the River Thames, Abingdon

Another family friendly option. Visit in the summer to enjoy the interactive water features and outdoor swimming pool. You’ll also find a newly refurbished playground, tennis courts and walks along the River Thames.

Parks in general are great for picnics; check out the free parks website for lots more suggestions.

5. Hartslock Nature Reserve, Goring

This is a good option if you want to combine a walk with a picnic. Park or take the train to Goring and then follow the river east until you reach the reserve. Head steeply uphill and rest on the bench looking out across the Thames and Goring Gap. A fabulous view, albeit slightly less lovely since the railway electrification gantries have been installed!

6. Minster Lovell hall, near Witney

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Minster Lovell hall was a 15th Century Manor House. Now in ruins it backs onto the River Windrush; a perfect setting for a picnic. Paddle in the shallow river, watch the ducks or explore the ruins. Be warned, it gets very busy in summer.

Park in St Kenelm’s Church car park from where it’s a five minute walk to the ruins.

7. Blenheim Palace parkland

Blenheim Palace is one of Oxfordshire’s most visited attractions. Its manicured parkland make sure a great picnic spot.

Whilst you need to pay to access the Palace or Pleasure Gardens it is possible to enter the parkland for free on a public footpath. Just pick up an OS map or follow the instructions here.

8. Rollright Stones, near Chipping Norton

Picnics aren’t just for summer. We ate a memorable picnic one cold January day surrounded by the Rollright Stones, a complex of three Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments.

There’s limited road parking beside the stones and an honesty box for your £1 entrance fee.

9. Lord Wantage monument, The Ridgeway

Take the B4494 from Wantage to Newbury for approximately three miles until you reach the Ridgeway car park. Park on the left hand side and then walk east along the Ridgeway for a few minutes until you reach the Boer war monument.

Lord Wantage monument, Ridgeway

Despite the amount of house building in Oxfordshire I always marvel at how much ‘countryside’ you can see from here; it feels very rural. Although you’re unlikely to be alone as it’s a popular rest stop for walkers and cyclists on the Ridgeway.

10. Beside the Oxford canal, Thrupp

Thrupp is a small canalside village a couple of miles from Kidlington. Choose your picnic spot beside the towpath and settle down to watch the narrow boats and ducks.

Parking is behind Annie’s cafe. Of course, if you’ve forgotten your picnic you could always just eat here instead!

11. Wittenham Clumps, Long Wittenham

Easy to spot from a distance these two wooded clumps are visible across much of flat South Oxfordshire. Archaeological digs have confirmed the site has been used since the Bronze Age; understandable given it’s prominent location.

Nowadays it’s a nature reserve and is better known for its kite flying and winter sledging opportunities. There’s an orientation pillar, benches and lovely views of the River Thames from the top of Round Hill. Or Didcot if you look in the other direction.

12. Watlington Hill, Christmas Common

Oxfordshire is well known for red kites and this is a great place to watch them. Its chalk grassland is also a haven for butterflies in the summer.

Park in the free National Trust car park at the top of the hill and walk a couple of hundred metres to find a picnic spot with a view. If you’re feeling more adventurous there’s a waymarked short route to follow around the hill.

13. Port Meadow, Oxford

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Port Meadow is a large meadow just outside the centre of Oxford bordering the River Thames. Best visited in summer unless you’re a bird watcher, if so visit in winter when the flooded plains are full of geese and ducks.

For picnics I prefer the Thames Path side on the opposite river bank, away from the grazing ponies and cattle, unless you’re happy surrounded by hooves!

14. Kirtlington Quarry nature reserve

Famous for its fossils this small nature reserve was once used for the production of cement. The tooth of a Megalosaurus has been found here so your picnic would have been a scary affair 166 million years ago. Nowadays it’s rather more relaxing; after your dinosaur hunt here’s a large flat area perfect for setting up your picnic mat.

15. Faringdon Folly woodland

Faringdon folly
Faringdon folly

Previously owned by the eccentric Lord Berners Faringdon Folly is usually open on the first and third Sunday from April to October. There are great views from the top so it’s worthwhile trying to coincide your visit with one of these dates. However the surrounding woodland is always open and is perfect for a picnic.

Wherever you decide to picnic remember to follow the Countryside Code.  Respect the countryside and most importantly take all rubbish away with you.

If I’ve missed your favourite picnic spot please let me know in the comments.

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